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Longhorns next test for record-setting Lock

December 17, 2017 GMT

COLUMBIA, MO. • Before he attempted a single pass in his record-breaking junior season, Missouri’s Drew Lock addressed the “elite” question. After a sophomore season that ended with 23 touchdowns, nearly 3,400 yards but only four wins, Lock began the 2017 season convinced he was among the game’s elite quarterbacks.

“I know I am,” he said back in August.

Lock’s next 12 games, some more than others, swayed others to feel the same. After setting the Southeastern Conference’s single-season record with 43 touchdown passes, Lock earned first-team recognition on the both All-SEC teams conducted by media and the league’s coaches, outpolling quarterbacks from Alabama, Auburn and Georgia, all of whom produced their share of impressive numbers while guiding their teams farther.

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But nobody across the league threw for more yards than Lock’s 3,695 or posted a better passer rating than his 169.4.

“I think the word ‘elite’ can be processed in a lot of different ways,” Lock said after Saturday’s practice, Mizzou’s latest workout for the Texas Bowl on Dec. 27 against the Texas Longhorns (6-6) in Houston. “So I’m not out there saying I’m the most elite quarterback of all time. I’m saying I made a lot of strides this year in my ability, which got me the point where people are actually talking and putting the quarterback at the University of Missouri out there, rather than (quarterbacks at programs like) Florida or Texas. Those are all very good quarterbacks, but you know what I’m saying: We fly under the radar here. For any of us to get our name out there on the national stage is awesome.”

Lock and the Tigers (6-6) feasted on a schedule that softened in the second half of the season, but his numbers were hard to dismiss as the product of a watered-down slate of opponents. In conference games, he led the league in passing yards (2,197) and passing touchdowns (25). He was every bit as productive on the road, throwing 20 touchdowns to just three interceptions in five games away from Columbia, with the best road passer rating (177.3) for an SEC quarterback in 10 years.

• MIZZOU TALK: Sound off about the 2017 season

• EYE ON THE TIGERS: Dave Matter’s Mizzou blog

All of which explains why Lock has a decision to make about 2018. He expects to announce whether he’ll enter next year’s NFL draft or return to Mizzou for his senior season sometime after MU’s bowl game. Underclassmen have until Jan. 15 to declare for the draft. The outcome of the Texas Bowl won’t factor into his decision, he said Saturday.

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“Win or lose I’m going to look at (the decision) the same,” he said. “I’m still taking in information right now. I’m going to make the best decision for me, me and my family. In the end, whatever I decide I’ll just know it’ll be what I feel is best.”

• SCHEDULE/RESULTS: 2017 Mizzou football

• STANDINGS: SEC football

Either way, Lock can punctuate his junior season with a performance against a Texas team that should feature the best defense the Tigers have played this year other than Georgia and Auburn, which rank Nos. 6 and 9, respectively, in yards allowed per play. The Longhorns check in at No. 34, though the Texas defense Mizzou faces in Houston will have a different look. All-Big 12 safety DeShon Elliott will skip the bowl while preparing for the NFL draft. Linebacker Malik Jefferson, the Big 12’s co-defensive player of the year, is recovering from turf toe and could miss the game, too. The juniors are Texas’ two leading tacklers.

With those two in the lineup, Texas faced three of the country’s most prolific quarterbacks earlier in the season and had mixed results against USC’s Sam Darnold, Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield, the Heisman Trophy winner, and Oklahoma State’s Mason Rudolph. The Longhorns lost all three games but held Mayfield to his second-lowest passer rating of the year (170.6) and became the only team to keep Rudolph from throwing a touchdown pass.

• PODCAST: Dave Matter in ‘Eye On The Tigers’

Lock said he won’t necessarily use those outings as his measuring stick for the bowl game.

“We’ve played against a lot of good defenses that have played good quarterbacks,” he said. “That never really went through my mind, but if people want to look at it like that, then so be it, I guess. Hopefully I translate just as well as those guys did in this game as I did all season.”

For the first time in two seasons, Lock won’t have Josh Heupel in his corner as MU’s offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach left the staff for the head-coaching job at Central Florida. Mizzou coach Barry Odom is still weighing options for his replacement and doesn’t expect to hire a successor until after the bowl game. Until then, tight ends coach Joe Jon Finley has served as de-facto coordinator while the staff employs an all-hands-on-deck approach to manage the offense.

The play-caller won’t be the same, but the Tigers will have the same arm triggering the offense in Houston. As Mizzou climbed back from a 1-5 start, Lock proved his elite status within his locker room long before the ballots were cast around the conference.

“When the chips got down he didn’t fold,” left guard Kevin Pendleton said. “That’s the biggest thing if I’m looking for a guy that I want to lead my team. A team that starts out 1-5 is not a good look, and then he’s able to rally the guys, bring them back and get them to a bowl game. That’s tremendous.

“It speaks to everything he wanted to prove.”